World Baseball Classic: Will China and Brazil Ever Really Belong in the Tourney?
Monday night / early Tuesday morning, while you were most likely fast asleep with an automatic berth in the 2017 World Baseball Classic on the line, China rallied in the bottom of the eighth with five runs to beat Brazil by a final score of 5-2.
The Battle of the BRICs turned out to be a rather exciting game between two countries you may have a hard time envisioning playing baseball.
This begs the question of why these two countries are participating in a tournament they have little to no chance of competing in, let alone winning.
If the World Baseball Classic is any indication, Brazil already has arrived on the international baseball scene. Brazil held a one-run lead over Japan with six outs to play in Saturday’s WBC opener before Japan rallied for a 5-3 win. Still, Brazil sent a strong statement by hanging with the two-time defending WBC champion, pitch for pitch, in a game played on Japanese soil in Fukuoka.
The narrow defeat was the latest sign of progress for a team that reached the field of 16 with a shocking 1-0 win over Panama in the final of last November’s qualifier. Regardless of how Brazil fares in this WBC, its mere presence in the tournament could reverberate for decades — particularly if the qualifier victory over Panama inspired young Brazilians to pick up a baseball bat one afternoon rather than kick a soccer ball.
Will scaring Japan in the opening round and beating Panama in the qualifying round of the WBC really lead young Brazilians to kick soccer to the curb and consider baseball?
Color me skeptical, but I just don't see that happening—at least not on a scale broad enough to soon see Brazilians helping fill MLB rosters. However, former Tampa Bay Rays executive Andres Reiner, who saw success in Venezuela years back and believes in Brazil, explained to Morosi:
The biggest new market for baseball nowadays is Brazil. It has (about 200 million people), and they are really good athletes.
There is very little baseball there now, but if organizations want to spend a little bit of money and put academies there, with high-level leagues, and get people and kids to play the game, I can assure you that in 10 years there will be so many players you will not have room for them all.
Haven't we been hearing the same sort of things about China as well?
Back in late 2011, Justin Bergman at Time reported about MLB's optimism in China:
MLB officials are optimistic, largely because of the success of the sport across Asia, particularly in Japan, Korea and Taiwan. Baseball has a long history in China too. The game was introduced to the country over a century ago by Chinese students returning home from Yale University. Mao Zedong banned it during the Cultural Revolution — unlike his beloved basketball — but it re-emerged after his death, eventually leading to the formation of the professional China Baseball League in 2002. In recent years, China has also made steady progress on the international stage, getting a hugely gratifying — and high-profile — victory over rival Taiwan at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
The next step for China is to be able to recruit better athletes to the sport. Baseball doesn't get the caliber of Chinese athletes that participate in track or play volleyball. There are Chinese table tennis players with more athleticism, hand-eye coordination and even size than the best Chinese baseball players. Right now, there just isn't the youth league infrastructure or baseball culture in China to draw the country's best athletes and develop them from a young age.
"When you have a country with a billion people, I'm sure you can find bigger guys," said the scout. "Right now, they're limited to the guys who play baseball. Eventually they can get guys with better bodies and more athleticism. There's a billion people there, so there's a market to tap. Once they build, they have to spread the baseball word to expand it to more people. The more they play in these types of tournaments, the more it helps. It's a slow process, but I think MLB is doing a good job, and the WBC helps for the people in China to see them playing against major leaguers. Do they have a chance to win? No, but that takes time."
At least this assessment tries to be realistic, but a few points here are a bit hard to fully digest.
For starters, to claim that China has a billion people and more than its fair share of world-class athletes is certainly true. But to say that "eventually they can get guys with better bodies and more athleticism" sounds an awful lot like the arguments proponents for soccer in the US for have put forth for ages now.
It's just not that simple.
If we really want to apply that kind of logic, shouldn't MLB be looking at India as well? At least there you could see if the game of baseball could be translated from the wildly popular game of cricket.
Even that's somewhat laughable, given that the Pittsburgh Pirates signed two reality show contestants in 2008 with the hopes of making both pitchers after neither had ever picked up a baseball prior to the show.
Maybe it's a tad unfair to use that story as an example, but what is the point of having countries like Brazil and China participate in the WBC other than serving up batting practice to the likes of Japan and Cuba as they prepare for the next round?
If the long-term goal of having these countries participate is to raise awareness and understanding of baseball alongside building a few academies, then how is that any less ridiculous than trying to find a major league pitcher in the state of Uttar Pradesh on a TV game show?
The fact is that people aren't going to tune in to watch a game they barely understand to see their fellow countrymen get hammered every few years against the world's elite.
Could this change over time?
Sure, anything is possible, but it's the same as hoping that a No. 16 seed will some day beat a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament in college basketball or that the US will make it to the World Cup final. Each year, it seems that the odds are improving, but even if an upset were to happen, would the dynamic of the tournament or the fortunes of that particular team itself change?
That's unlikely given the fact that a major upset would need to be parlayed into several wins over the course of a tournament in order to get people interested enough to watch and believe they are witnessing something special.
Then, they'd have to do it again, perhaps several times more, before making a lasting impact.
If you want an example of a success story, think of Gonzaga University's men's basketball team.
It's taken nearly 15 years for the program to go from relative obscurity to being ranked No. 1 in the country.
Today, though, I'd imagine China is simply happy to have taken a key first step in its own growth by earning an automatic berth for the next WBC in 2017.
Small steps, I suppose, but will China be any better equipped to compete in four years?
Will China and Brazil ever really compete in the WBC?
Perhaps it may come as some surprise, but I sure hope so.
I believe that adding countries like China and Brazil to the mix is exciting, provided they can field teams capable of actually competing.
I suppose we need to be patient, though, and hope that in 2017 the "mercy rule" is unnecessary, and maybe by 2021 it will be outlawed completely; otherwise, the presence of teams that can't compete further risks cheapening a tournament that continues to struggle in gaining credibility on a global scale.
Until then, the people on the streets of cities such as Sao Paulo and Shanghai probably won't be rooting for any MLB players, regardless of where they were born or what country they represent.
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